At the 1990 Country Music Association Awards, George Strait was crowned Entertainer of the Year, Garth Brooks walked away with the Horizon Award and Mary Chapin Carpenter — who wasn’t nominated in a single category— stole the show.
The then-32-year-old singer had just released her third album but was still a relative newcomer in the country music world, so scoring a coveted performance slot on the broadcast (albeit an abbreviated one) was a tremendous honor. Still, she used that time not to promote sales of her new LP by singing one of its tracks, but rather to introduce a snarky unreleased tune, “Opening Act.”
“I don’t have a hit in the Billboard charts/I don’t have a limousine that stretches three blocks/Ready to take me from door to door/Just like that jackass I’m opening for/He doesn’t know me; I’m his opening act,” Carpenter sang to a standing ovation.
“When they first asked me, I immediately said ‘no,'” Carpenter tells Engine 145 of the CMA producers’ request for “Opening Act.” “It was a novelty number; I was afraid that it would lose a little bit of bite because there was actually a dirtier version of the song that we did live…. But it was a special opportunity and I did it. I’ll always remember that night. Michael Campbell, Ricky Van Shelton’s manager at the time, was there during soundcheck and he was the last person I saw before I went on stage. Right before I went out, I heard him say, ‘That was a nice career you had going there, Carpenter!’ When the audience stood and applauded, I was just flabbergasted.”
She admitted the song was based on an “unpleasant” true story but has never publicly revealed the identity of the “jackass.” Many assumed Dwight Yoakam, as Carpenter had toured with him and mentions in the song that the headliner wears tight jeans and a hat, among other, more insulting descriptions that didn’t make the censored version for the CMAs. But that’s perhaps not the best guess, as Yoakam is namechecked in more of a flattering, flirtatious way in one of Carpenter’s best-loved songs, “I Feel Lucky,” which was released less than two years after her CMA daredevil act.
What the singer-songwriter will say is that no matter who inspired “Opening Act,” a lot of her peers (and heroes) can commiserate. “I was sitting next to Tammy Wynette, and she held my hand and told me this wonderful story about how years prior, when she was just starting out, how some guy treated her like dirt,” she tells the Washington Business Journal. “That’s when it really hit me. You could be a nobody like me or be Tammy Wynette, and you could relate to that song. That’s why it went over.”
Two years later, Chapin released the biggest album of her career, Come On Come On, and won the CMA award for Female Vocalist of the Year in her first of back-to-back wins in the category.